Coercive Power In The Workplace: Everything You Need To Know

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Picture this. You have a lot on your plate at the moment. So you decide to visit your manager and inform him that you may have to extend a couple of deadlines. Your manager agrees. However, when you are about to leave the room, he reminds you that your performance review is looming around the corner, and it’d be best if you pulled up your socks. You start to panic frantically and do whatever it is in your power to meet those deadlines. So what exactly caused this turn of events? The answer to this question would be coercive power. Read on to find out what coercive power means and how to use coercive power to get what you want.


  • Coercive Power is Authoritarian
  • The Use of Threats Is Common
  • Coercive Power Can Be Both Direct And Indirect
  • Advantages Include More Productivity and Better Working Conditions
  • Disadvantages Include Lower Retention Rates and Stifled Creativity
  • Coercive Power Can be Used to Motivate and Enforce Rules



So what exactly is coercive power? To understand this term, we have to first take a look at what coercion means. Coercion is a situation where someone compels you to do something, usually through the use of force or threats. In the workplace, coercion can be both apparent as well as subtle, the latter being more complicated to manage. It could be in the form of physical violence as well.

When a manager uses coercion to force an employee into achieving a task, that ability is called coercive power. The superior uses pressure and the threat of punishment to get work done instead of using persuasion to influence the employee. Coercive power is a type of leadership power. It is authoritarian, which means, a leader’s direct reports are compelled to follow any order issued. No questions asked. This power is used to influence followers too.

Employers using this power style also avoid rewarding their subordinates as they fear that they may be looked upon as “weak”. Fear is the main motivating factor here. Most employees abide by their leader’s dictum as they are afraid of the harsh consequences.

The Professional Leadership Institute provides training on Managing Underperformers in the Workplace and offers a free preview.


Coercive leadership has the following traits:

i. Top-Down Communication: This is how an organization carries out communication through a hierarchical structure. The senior establishes the objectives, projects, resources, and assignments. She communicates the same to the rest of the team herself. Clear goals and expectations could be set if the leader has strong decision-making skills. In top-down communication, the leader controls the flow of information. However, critical points can get lost in translation.

ii. Single Input Source: There is just one source from where the ideas stem. The top boss makes all the decisions and gives all the orders. Others’ opinions and ideas are not taken under coercive leadership. This has both positive and negative implications, which will be discussed later in the article.

iii. Use of Threats: Since coercive power is authoritative, threats are a common feature. These can be either direct or implied. Employees have to face negative consequences if they do not work according to their leader’s demands.

iv. Dictatorial Control: Those who brandish coercive power prefer to solely dictate the terms. The company revolves around the leader here. They draw up the work processes and allocate the appropriate personnel to each project. Authoritarian leadership can turn into a toxic management style if not taken care of soon.

v. Cast Iron Structure: The manager lays down specific paths, work structures, and methodologies to be followed. Workers must pay heavily if they deviate from the designed course of action. Moreover, employees cannot function effectively in a siloed environment with little room for flexibility and independence.

vi. Rules and Policies: A coercive leader will enforce compliance through policies and procedures. These ensure adherence to company best standards and practices. The incumbent may also create his own rules to show his authority.


  1. Open: This type of behavior is direct and conspicuous. You can legally take action against the person behaving coercively. Example: A boss explicitly tells her subordinate that she would not promote him unless he completes a task.
  2. Obscure: The employee perceives this type of coercive behavior whether it is real or not. Gaslighting or emotional abuse is a type of hidden coercive behavior. This kind of behavior is indirectly manipulative and hard to understand. For instance, most workers put in longer hours before an HR review in the hopes of a bonus.



There are several types of coercive power, some of which are highlighted below:

Use of Threats

Workplace threats are anything that negatively affects or harms individuals. Threats instill fear in employees and affect their mental wellbeing. Threats are crafted to frighten, manipulate and injure the worker’s emotional or physical health. Examples of threats are verbal or physical abuse, emotional torture, harassment, and bullying.


Demotion is when the employee shifts to a lower role. This could mean that the employee now has a lower ranking, lesser responsibilities, and possibly a lower remuneration. Employers use demotion as a disciplinary measure as opposed to suspending an employee. Most staff think that demotion is punitive as they feel that they are incapable of achieving results at a high level.
Certain contracts enable the employer to lawfully demote the worker for not being able to carry out duties as expected. Alternatively, the employer can demote an employee for unruly behavior. Another reason is corporate restructuring. Furthermore, the employer may find it beneficial to retain the worker in a lesser capacity.

Loss of bonuses or commissions

Many employers use financial means to reward performance. Bonuses are great incentives for retaining and recognizing efforts put in by the staff. It is the employer’s discretion to withhold bonuses and other supplementary payments. Thus, this type of coercive power is finance-oriented.


There are binding contracts that keep an employee from working freely. In certain countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom, employers are allowed to enforce trade restrains of the period and area after the employee leaves the organization.

Loss of Privileges

Employees receive fringe benefits that are ancillary non-cash compensations. This motivates them and helps in retention. For instance, disability insurance, tuition privileges, parking perks, insurance schemes, and employee discounts are common benefits. Other common examples include paid vacations, sick leaves, stock options, childcare benefits, standard office perks, and wellness programs.

Suspension or Termination

Suspension is an organization prohibits an employee from working for a certain period. Termination is when a company removes a member of the staff from the organization. A manager has the power to suspend an employee if he has solid legal evidence of any misconduct on the part of the latter. Similarly, in the case of termination, the employer can fire a worker with or without cause.


coercive power advantages

Those who follow the coercive style of leadership take on an authoritative role. This ensures speedier and more efficient work. Let us take a look at the advantages of coercive power in a corporate setting:

A rise in productivity

Leaders that use coercive power to get work done ensure that productivity is always at optimum levels. The manager lays out the outline for tasks. Her employees follow her orders without saying a word. Efficiency is the keyword here. This stems from the fact that the workers diligently perform their assignments. Here, efficiency is directly related to productivity. Thus, coercive power can be effectively used to encourage low-performing groups to be more proficient.

A much better way to get a rise in productivity is to understand the personalities of your employees and get them working in their areas of strength. Take our free DISC personality assessment to find out your personality today!

Faster results

A coercive superior expects you to follow through. He will not entertain excuses of any kind. This ensures that you get your projects completed as soon as possible, with minimum delays and questions asked. If you cannot submit your results by the deadline set by your lead, you may not have a job in the future. The lower the tolerance for excuses, the faster is the delivery.

Crosses out Insubordination

There have been instances of unruly employees going off the track in the workplace. To cite an example of office indiscipline, think of that co-worker who regularly comes in late or takes those extra-long breaks. Coercive authority takes care of insubordination with the use of force. A coercive leader will strive to ensure compliance.

Improvement in Working Conditions

Authoritarian leaders make sure that procedures, best practices, and policies are strictly implemented and follows. They are strict with rules and regulations. These managers look into loopholes in workplace regulations and safety and fix them. Therefore, you can expect better working conditions under this type of leadership.

Prevents Negativity

Figureheads who exhibit coerciveness are instrumental in removing workplace harassment and discrimination. This may seem counterintuitive, however, coercive power does have the ability to control these delicate matters.

In addition to the above, there are other benefits of coercive power. These include the enforcement of the latest quality standards and rigid adherence to corporate statutes. All advantages considered, it is important to keep in mind that there are laws in place to regulate the governance of employees. Let us go over the disadvantages of coercive power now.

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Fear is the main motivator

Fear is essentially a negative emotion. The leader displaying coercive power must effectively use threats to accomplish a task. He spoils his image if he does not act upon his threats. This defeats the purpose of having coercive power. Consequently, productivity is adversely affected when employees retaliate and refuse to take direct orders.

May incite Worker Retaliation

Employees have access to the laws surrounding the abuse of leadership. They have the right to notify any misconduct to the HR department and other relevant authorities. Like with all leadership powers, coercive power has its merits and demerits. Members of the staff must decide whether they would like to accept this style of leadership or let fear control them. The gamut of reasons includes discrimination, explicit threats, sexual advances, harassment, verbal and physical abuse, unnecessary scrutiny, and false rumors, among others.

Can stifle Innovation

Under a dictatorial kind of leadership, the workers cannot usually express their thoughts and creativity. Certain leaders may not allow their subordinates to provide their inputs and share opinions on business-related matters. This narrows down the perspectives for analyzing and strategizing on projects. Also, new ideas are a must for any organization to thrive in a competitive industry. Leaders who tend to use this power should actively try and foster innovation and unleash hidden potential.

Lower retention rates

No one likes a bossy superior. As the adage goes people do not leave jobs, they leave bosses. Managing the workforce is a challenging task, especially if under a coercive leadership style. Some employees may not like the idea of acquiescing to their manager’s whims and fancies. Moreover, the fear of imminent doom may loom over their heads and make work difficult for them. Focusing solely on the bottom line may not work with a lot of people. Hence, they search for greener pastures.


You can liken a coercive leader to a dictator. You have to obey, respect, fear, and listen to the leader. This style often intimidates people.  Most cannot adjust well to this leadership form because of the fear factor. On the other hand, some individuals enjoy autonomy either in full or to a certain extent. Coercive leadership, in most cases, does not allow this breathing space. Due to these reasons, the leader is highly unpopular among his peers and juniors.


Why use coercive power


Coercive power is necessary at times for several reasons, some of which are listed below:

Unruly behavior: Coercive power comes in handy when employees start going astray for all the wrong reasons. For example, a leader can take necessary action if a worker is consistently disobedient or late to work.

To enforce standard procedures: Workplace safety should be of utmost priority. The leader has the right to enforce stringent policies and regulations when employees openly flout the rules. Additionally, coercive power can aid in mitigating resistance and uprisings of any kind.

Intercepting Workplace Harassment: An alert leader can use coercive power to prevent workplace harassment. Employees would stop indulging in malpractices if threatened with suspension, termination, or a lawsuit.

To motivate the staff: Coercive power can influence behavioral changes. Threats and punishments can work conversely in motivating individuals to perform better.

Final Words

Coercive power should be seen as a potential rather than a threat. The manager should see to it that his leadership style does not disrupt the normal working of the organization. Rather, the incumbent should work towards enhancing the overall productivity. This could be achieved by utilizing the positive overtones that accompany coercive power.


Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:

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